INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
It doesn’t get much better than a long weekend with friends and a far-flung football match thrown in and, through his cult website European Football Weekends, Danny Last managed to capture the essence of football tourism. We ask him about his travels, his site and how blogging has changed…
I wanted to begin by asking you about football tourism and blogging about it, which you did, thrilling a cult following, on your European Football Weekends website. When did you come up with the idea to start the site?
I was chugging across Romania on possibly the world’s slowest train with some fellow lunatics who’d long since fallen asleep. So, thinking quickly, in between looking out the window at the odd horse and cart and local rice street vendor, while slurping on a warm can of beer, I started to jot down a few notes about the trip. I typed it up upon my return home, added a few blurry photos, and to my amazement about 13 people read it.
How long had you been travelling to watch football in various other countries before that?
10 years or so. That trip to Romania was back in 2007, but my first European Football Weekend proper was to see Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid in 1996, in the days when the Bernabeu had sections of terracing, raucous fans and an atmosphere. I went to Vicenza Calcio in 1988 too, on a school trip. We used to travel around Europe on a coach as part of our European Studies, which was pretty cool. As the rest of the class were taking notes and marvelling at the Palazzo della Ragione, myself and one of the teachers, West Ham fan, Mr Tolerton, sneaked off to the Stadio Romeo Menti to watch a bit of football. Perfect.
Were you surprised by just how many people were keen to read about and emulate your travels?
For the first few years nobody read the website. I didn’t care a jot – but then I met Paul Hayward in a pub in Brighton, got chatting over a few beers and an expensive roast dinner and scribbled the EFW URL down on a torn off bit of the Sunday paper. He was working for the Daily Mail back then and gave it a mention in his column. Things went a bit bonkers after that and I made the mistake of checking each day to see how many people were logging on. Note to current bloggers: never do that, it sucks the life out of you. It wasn’t until I started the EFW Facebook group that I realised how many people I’d influenced in emulating my travels. Who knew?
Can you pinpoint the appeal of football tourism?
Yes, instead of pulling on a suit and going to work, you pitch up at an airport with five of your best mates; fly out into the unknown, talk absolute shite for three days, watch some football, see some sights, eat, drink and be merry. Perfect.
Do you prefer the less familiar destinations – the lower league clubs in Germany or Spain, that don’t offer hundred-strong stadium tours every two hours?
I do now, yes. Of course everybody kicks off with trips to Barcelona, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and all of that show business – but if you’re not too bothered about what happens on the pitch, and don’t much fancy being herded around like sheep or buying €80 football shirts then you can have just as much fun, if not more, elsewhere. Go and see a local derby at Preussen Munster or Rot-Weiss Essen for €10.
To me, it seems so much more interesting to read what is like to go and watch a game in, say, Cracow, than to read whether Julio Geordio has signed a new contract. Are a lot of blogs tapping into that general desire to read about something different?
There’s a blog for every single aspect of football now isn’t there? Everything is blogged about to the nth degree. So get big, get niche or get out.
What was the highlight of the whole EFW era?
Things got a bit surreal when boxes of stuff from adidas started arriving at the door with football boots, towels (towels!), T-shirts, shorts, footballs and cuddly toys all with the words ‘European Football Weekends’ or simply ‘EFW’ stitched into them. But the thing I’m most proud of is the friendship between the fans of Royal Antwerp and Forest Green Rovers, which all stemmed from the original EFW trips that I used to organise. Fans from those two clubs came in numbers, formed a firm bond and now organise trips to see each other’s teams a few times a season – all because of a few words of nonsense I used to jot down whilst nursing a football hangover.
For you, which is the best country to watch football in and which club/ground did you enjoy visiting the most?
You can never go far wrong in Germany. Poland is a cheaper version of Germany with fans that can both excite and frighten in equal measures, but the country I fell in love with most while watching football was in Serbia. I pitched up on an overnight train from Croatia after having a gun poked in my face by border officials and was met by a lion of a man called Nenad. He drove me out into the countryside where, after a while, I presumed I was going to be cut up into small pieces and buried underground. Instead, his mother had laid on a huge spread of food and welcoming drinks. A few days of 80p beers, Belgrade derbies, flares, fireworks, hulking great floodlights, tinpot games, £5 match tickets, £1 taxi rides and very late nights later and I was hooked – a fan and friends for life.
Will the site remain live for posterity and has anyone offered to buy the URL from you?
Yes and yes. I never read it now as it makes me cringe. I just want to rewrite everything because it’s a grammatical horror show, littered with other errors and looks a bit bobbins and dated. But that was part of its charm I suppose. I was offered some money for the URL recently but it was a derisory amount and the chap wanted to turn it into a steaming pile of shite from what I could gather. So I turned it down.
Your site was like the Old Major of these cult football blogs – are you pleased to see several other independent blogs getting the praise and attention they are due?
Fair play to any independent blog that gets due praise and attention because I can tell you the person behind it would have put in hours and hours of “work” doing it. Blogging is a huge time sponge – but you do it for the love of doing it not money.
In Bed With Maradona is one of those sites and you are now involved with their photography section. What has that been like?
You have to raise your game when you do stuff for IBWM because – unlike EFW – there are standards. It’s a brilliant thing and I’m proud to have my name associated with it. All I really do there is source stuff for their online galleries. It doesn’t take up too much time and I love doing it. The guys that put it all together are absolute troopers too. Don’t tell them that though, obviously.
Your photos capture the essence of the clubs and places you visit nicely. What aspects do you look for in a football ground when you photograph them?
Ah, the photos. I used to bluff my way through writing, which I was never very comfortable with to be honest as my vocabulary is very limited. And now the photos. Which I also bluff my way through. My camera cost £100 and I’m able to mask my inefficiencies this time around by using filters. I’m never too interested in photos of what occurs on the pitch, always preferring to see happens off it. The best photographers to my mind; Stuart Roy Clarke, Tom Jenkins, David Bauckham, Gabriel Uchida, Jurgen Vantomme and the like always take images that make you want to go to a football match. That’s what I try and do. Honest.
Finally, how would you have felt if we had used the phrase “matchday experience” in this interview?
I think my pulse rate would have remained roughly the same. To my mind it’s obviously not just about the football. I’m not one to go home after a match and ring a radio station or write a volley of abuse on a fans’ forum – I like to enjoy everything that surrounds a match, which normally involves a few drinks and a few hours of talking rhubarb. If that’s your kind of “matchday experience” too, we are more than likely to get on. It helps if you like Half Man Half Biscuit too, mind you.